Michigan is playing Saturday which means the nation is in store for another instant classic. The past two Michigan games – an 81-73 loss at Indiana and a 76-74 OT win vs. Ohio State – have not only lived up to the hype but also are already on the short list of potential “Games of the Year.”
The only thing that seems fairly certain about Saturday’s game in Madison is that it would be a miracle if the game was played in the 70s. For as efficient as Michigan’s offense is, it still plays at a slower pace and has failed to reach 70 points in four of 10 conference games (That said, Michigan has scored 94 and 95 points, respectively, in a pair of games as well). Wisconsin actually had a stretch of games from Dec. 12 until the beginning of February where it allowed just one opponent – Iowa – to score at least 60 points in a game. The Hawkeyes did it again Wednesday night – needing 2 OT of course – in another home game Wisconsin should have lost but found a way to win.
What that tells us is a game in the 60s seems like the best guess for the Wolverine-Badger tussle. Here’s a big breakdown of Saturday’s showdown at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center (h/t to Kenpom):
Let’s make one thing clear before even digesting the above numbers: While Michigan plays slow it isn’t the same reason Wisconsin plays slow: The Badgers’ swing offense (although Bo Ryan has actually used a more conventional offense this season with some swing principals incorporated) uses a lot of clock and is a way to exploit mismatches because, quite frankly, Wisconsin isn’t that athletic. Michigan, on the other hand, can really run with any team in the country thanks to uber-athletic players such as Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., just to name a few. Michigan plays slower because it tries harder than many teams to get undoubtedly the best shot down each trip (except the could-have-been-game-winner against Ohio State at the end of regulation where a time out resulted in Burke dribbling down the clock before heaving a fade-away triple despite being guarded by a big!).
Basketball Prospectus’ John Gasaway had an interesting breakdown of how this Wisconsin team isn’t that much different from Bo Ryan’s previous teams. The breakdown compares 2013 to 2012 where, in Big Ten play, Wisconsin’s eFG% (46.5 to 46.7), TO% (15.4 to 15.6) and OR% (31.3 to 29.2) are very similar. In fact, those numbers would lead you to believe Wisconsin should be better offensively in conference play. Except the Badgers (through Jan. 30) were .05 PPP worse. The free throw line is the reason, where Wisconsin had been making just 52 percent of freebies compared to 77 percent last season. That trend undeniable is the reason Wisconsin’s offensive efficiency is at it’s worst clip since a 20-13 season in 2009 (Wisconsin got a 12 seed that year compared to the 4 seed the Badgers have received each of the past three seasons – and not including the No. 3 seed in 2008 and No. 2 seed in 2007).
Interestingly enough, the Badgers’ free throw woes might be irrelevant on gameday because Michigan doesn’t foul and Wisconsin doesn’t exactly make it a habit of getting to the foul line. (In fact, Wisconsin didn’t attempt a free throw in a 58-49 loss at Ohio State on Jan. 29 – just the 27th team to do so in the past 10 years). But in a close game down the stretch when attacking the rim is a necessity, if Michigan happens to foul this could be a factor.
Wisconsin’s free throw woes, which are at 62.2 percent on the season (329th in the country) aren’t even in the “Top 3 Keys” to the game. I would put those as follows: Michigan’s 3-point offense vs. Wisconsin’s 3-point defense, Wisconsin’s 3-point offense vs. Michigan’s 3-point defense, and Trey Burke vs. Traevon Jackson.
Michigan’s 3-point offense vs. Wisconsin’s 3-point defense: Michigan’s 40-percent clip from beyond the arc is 6th in the country. In fact, Michigan is one of six teams shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and 50 percent from 2-point range (Indiana, Duke, Creighton, NC State and Harvard – yes, Harvard, led by former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker – are the others). Just recall how Tim Hardaway Jr. got hot against Ohio State in Michigan’s comeback. On three straight trips he swished a triple and, a few possessions later, canned a fourth. Despite being at 43.1 percent (47-for-109) Hardaway isn’t even the teams’ best long-range shooter. That’s Nik Stauskas who is at 48.7 percent on the year (58-119). GR3 is right at 40 percent (18-45) while Burke “lags” behind at a still stellar 37.9 percent (44-116). That gives Michigan four starters who kill it from deep to go with the inside presence of Mitch McGary, Jon Horford and, still-not-100-percent Jordan Morgan who do all their work inside. The McGary-Horford-Morgan trio hasn’t attempted a triple all season.
Even against an Ohio State team that has been one of the best perimeter defensive teams in the past handful of years Michigan went 14-for-24 from 3-point range. Give Michigan any space (and even that isn’t needed sometimes) and it’s a very lethal way to play defense.
Wisconsin, probably because the players are used to defending against 3-balls in daily practices, is in the top 45 of the nation’s better 3-point defenses. Why is Wisconsin so successful defending long bombs? It all starts with switching defenses and high hedges on pick-and-rolls. Against the majority of teams the Badgers are so confident at their defensive rotations that they don’t worry about momentary switches or going the extra few steps to make a point guard’s job that much harder.
The key against Michigan will be this: The Wolverines are quicker than most Big Ten teams which means even slight mismatches will be exploited. If Wisconsin hedges hard it allows Burke, who hasn’t been bothered by high hedges that much this season, an easier passing lane to a likely cutting GR3 or Hardaway for an easy bucket. Wisconsin wants to make every possession a grind-it-out one, but doing so might mean picking your poison against Michigan’s 3-point offense.
Wisconsin’s 3-point offense vs. Michigan’s 3-point defense: What Wisconsin does almost as good as any team in the country is get open looks for 3-point shooters, especially it’s bigs. The trio of 6-11 Frank Kaminsky, 6-10 Jared Berggren and 6-6 Mike Bruesewitz has attempted 146 triples this season. The problem has been the success rate (47-for-146 is a blah 32.2 percent). It’s the guards (see Jackson who’s off-the-front-of-the-rim-and-off-the-backboard-before-falling 3-pointer with 20 seconds to play against Iowa on Wednesday tied the game and eventually forced overtime) who seem to make the most of open opportunities. Still, as a team Wisconsin’s 34.4 percent from deep is hardly Wisconsin-esque. For a team that attempts roughly 20-25 triples a game that isn’t exactly the formula for a great team. In fact, it’s the formula for a likely double-digit loss team stuck in the 7-10 range on Selection Sunday.
Michigan won’t have to change it’s defense all that much to account for Wisconsin’s heavy 3-point offense; instead the Wolverines will just have to make sure quick switches don’t allow the Badgers easy dumpoffs to cutters. 3-point shooting, for both sides, is really the key to this game.
Trey Burke vs. Traevon Jackson: Yeah, I know you’re laughing.It’s like Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas. (Oh, see what I did there! Start at the 7-minute mark for the knockout sequence). In all seriousness, that’s kind of what this point guard matchup is like. Burke is a serious contender for national player of the year (He’s No. 1 on Ken Pomeroy’s KPOY rankings) vs. a guy who was going to play this season as a backup point guard before Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser was hurt in the preseason and is out for the year. After going up against Aaron Craft, who should be the national defensive player of the year without question, this should feel like playing against me (I’m 5-5, 130) in a game of one-on-one. Jackson isn’t a great defender and he’s probably worse offensively (87.7 would make him the 41st best player in the SWAC!). Burke should have a field day offensively and some of that greatness could come off his one-on-one defense with the likely-to-struggle offensively Jackson. Expect Burke to have his usual 15-point, 7-assist, 1-or-2-turnover game while being the catalyst for Michigan while Wisconsin tries to survive a 6-point, 3-assist, 3-turnover game from Jackson.
The pick: I love Michigan in this spot. After grinding out a win against the Buckeyes – a team that I don’t think is that great but has the number (or close-to number) of many Big Ten foes including Michigan – the Wolverines can see the path to a Big Ten Championship. It still includes a home date with Indiana (9-1 in the Big Ten), a home-and-home with Michigan State (8-2) but that is really it unless Michigan slips in a home-and-home vs. Penn State, home against Illinois or at Purdue. Kenpom has Michigan projected to win every game left but, with three percentages in the 50s (including this game, a 62-60 Michigan victory) the likely outcome is a 14-4 Big Ten record. That should be good enough for a Big Ten championship, but nothing would be sweeter than controlling their own destiny by winning out (16-2 would guarantee a non-shared title). Wisconsin has shown the ability to get rattled at home this season against inferior teams (a loss to Virginia and a should-be loss to Iowa). Michigan doesn’t get rattled in any venue and should not only win this game but do so in fairly convincing fashion (for a low-scoring game). I’m thinking Michigan wins 63-55, easily covering the 1 1/2. That means Michigan will be your new No. 1 and will have to defend that ranking Tuesday night at Michigan State.
Other Big Ten games:
Northwestern at Iowa, 4:30 p.m., BTN
Line: Iowa -8
Kenpom: Iowa 68-60
Analysis: One of the more surprising teams in the country is Iowa. The 14-9 Hawkeyes (3-7 Big Ten) are 33rd in Kenpom’s rankings. He has Iowa projected to finish 8-10 in Big Ten play, which would mean a 19-12 record heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Is this a team that could crash the Big Dance as one of those last few teams in? Well, it all depends. Right now Iowa’s biggest win is at home against Wisconsin. Other big Ten wins (at Northwestern and vs. Penn State) are pretty much useless in terms of NCAA talk. So too is a future home-and-home with Nebraska, home games with Northwestern and Purdue and a trip to Happy Valley to face Penn State again. That’s why Wednesday’s loss at Wisconsin was so crippling in many ways. Iowa’s chances for a “big” regular season win are now down to this: Feb. 17 vs. Minnesota, March 2 at Indiana and March 5 vs. Illinois. Realistically it would appear Iowa has to beat two of the three (Minnesota and Illinois seems like the likeliest of combos; a win against Indiana in Bloomington would go a long way to putting Iowa in the field). So, what does all this have to do with Iowa’s game against Northwestern? Not much, except that Iowa has big dreams and games like this one are high-risk, no-reward contests. Iowa should win and should do so easily. Iowa whipped Northwestern 70-50 on the road early in conference play – that was coming off a three-game-losing-stretch of facing Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State. Expect a similar double-digit win from the Hawkeyes making it a given to lay the 8 points.
Michigan State at Purdue, 7 p.m., Saturday, BTN
Line: MSU -4
Kenpom: MSU 65-59 Analysis: Attention trap-game believers, here you go. The Spartans are likely to face a Top-5 Michigan team next week and are coming off a grind-it-out 61-50 win against Minnesota (56 possessions!) on Wednesday. Playing at Purdue’s Mackey Arena is always tough, even when Purdue is “down” as it is this season. Still, Purdue played Michigan State tough earlier this season (the game was tied at 38 with 16:34 to play before Michigan State hit another gear for the final 16 minutes to win 84-61). I would expect the Spartans to win a close game but wouldn’t be surprised at all if Purdue pulls the upset. Therefore, take Purdue +4 points knowing the Boilermakers very well could win outright.
Penn State at Nebraska, 9 p.m., Saturday, ESPNU
Line: Nebraska -6
Kenpom: Nebraska 61-55
Analysis: Unless you attend Nebraska or Penn State or have a child playing in the game you’re very unlikely to watch this game (heck, even some parents might not watch this game). Penn State is awful this year and has a good case to be the country’s best “BCS bottomfeeder.” (You be the judge: Is Penn State worse than the SEC’s Mississippi State, the Big East’s DePaul, the ACC’s Wake Forest, the Pac 12′s Utah, the Big 12′s Texas Tech?) Nebraska isn’t a basketball school but you have to be impressed watching Tim Miles’ team compete, especially at home. I like Nebraska to win big here, easily covering the 6-point spread.
Indiana at Ohio State, 1 p.m., Sunday, CBS
Line: Indiana -1 1/2*
Kenpom: Indiana 72-71 Analysis: On Thursday we finally got to see Indiana’s first real road test of the season. The Hoosiers, for the most part, looked like they were playing at their own Assembly Hall in building and playing with a comfortable double-digit lead for much of the game. Then, in the closing minutes, Indiana choked. The offensive game plan resembled garbage and defensive breakdowns allowed Illinois to hit crucial 3-pointers. A historic defensive gaff on the final inbounds play with 0.9 second left gave Illinois the shocking victory. The road only gets tougher as, after this game, Indiana still has to visit Michigan State (Feb. 19), Minnesota (Feb. 26) and Michigan (March 10) so the road to a Big Ten title definitely has some hurdles. As I stated before, I think Ohio State is a good team, but it’s more like the Ohio State Thomas’ than anything else. Everyone now and then it looks like a fairly well-rounded team but when Thomas is about 50 percent of the offense it’s tough to seriously consider a squad Top 10 material. That being said, Ohio State doesn’t lose to bad teams (Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Michigan, Illinois), it just has trouble with really good teams. (Illinois was 13-2 and playing like a NCAA Tournament lock in early January and, as mentioned above, did just dethrone the No. 1 team). This game comes down to if Ohio State can get easy buckets off Indiana turnovers because I think Indiana’s offense is good enough to break down OSU’s defense. Plus, it would be shocking if Victor Oladipo had any assignment other than to stop Deshaun Thomas for 40 minutes (unless minutes here and there making life miserable for Aaron Craft is on Tom Crean’s wish list). I like Indiana here in a major bounce-back spot. Take Indiana unless the Hoosiers are giving more than three points.
Illinois at Minnesota, 6 p.m., Sunday, BTN
Line: Minnesota -8 1/2*
Kenpom: Minnesota 76-65
Analysis: This game got a lot more interesting after Illinois’ 74-72 victory vs. Indiana on Thursday. The Fighting Illini finally have a recent notable win to go with early-season wins over Butler, at Gonzaga and vs Ohio State. As the world saw on Thursday this team lives and dies by the three. When the shots are falling, especially since Illinois fires shots at an alarming rate. More than 40 percent of Illinois’ field goal attempts are from deep. I suspect that Illinois will have to make plenty of 3s to stay in this game. Minnesota should win, but look for Illinois to make it another Big Ten classic by covering the spread as long as it’s above 3 1/2 points.
*Sunday lines won’t be released until late Saturday so these are estimates.
BONUS PLAY: Louisville at Notre Dame, 9 p.m., Saturday, ESPNLine: Louisville -5 1/2
Kenpom: Louisville 70-61
Analysis: If you know anything about Notre Dame basketball… congratulations. The Irish program has been a very solid under-the-radar program under Mike Brey. It’s not great, but it’s always solid, especially at home. ESPN’s College GameDay sets up in South Bend on Saturday meaning the place will be rocking much more than normal. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Louisville will be expected to win (and picked to win by most experts not named Digger Phelps). However, not only am I expecting Notre Dame to cover I’m expecting Notre Dame to win (maybe even going away!). I’ll have a first-hand look at this one as I’ll be attending the game with my brother and two friends who are both Notre Dame graduates. Will make for a fun weekend, especially when I take Notre Dame with the 5 1/2 points.
Last week: 6-4 (NCAA hoops) 1-0 (Super Bowl XLVII)2013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 31-132013 Year-to-Date: 39-16